Stepping off the powered walkway
At its crudest, gender bias can feel like there is one half of the population racing with weights in their backpack and the other half running ahead on a powered walkway. And when you layer in intersectionality, it becomes even more pronounced.
When I first entered an office full time in 2005, gender bias was more explicit in the workplace: sexist jokes; women shuffled out or side-lined whilst on or shortly after maternity leave; young women told not to make a fuss when a client made a pass or belittled them; people hired and promoted for being the right ‘fit’. The list goes on.
Now when I tell those stories to colleagues starting out in the workplace, they are sometimes shocked. But the reality is that these sorts of things still happen, but it has just become subtler.
So, beyond knowing gender bias is still there, what needs to happen now must be multifaceted.
First, clear, outright bias should be challenged and disciplinary action should be taken where that’s appropriate.
To tackle the subtler side, it is more about establishing the right culture. And here the leadership of an organisation needs to be ready to act, to call it out or in, even when it is uncomfortable. It needs to be able to support those who are facing bias and to help educate those who may not realise they are perpetuating it.
Second, women need to be put on a path that enables them to go for and be promoted into a wider range of senior roles. And women in middle management need support and encouragement to stay the course for the long run, in agency as well as in-house. I’m a Managing Director (Corporate Affairs), but without the support of forward-looking bosses at various stages throughout my career, my path could have been very different.
Ultimately, to move the dial, men need to be supported too. To be encouraged to sponsor and champion female colleagues. To be given the space to play their part in family life – with an erosion of the current bias against men with caring responsibilities. To be encouraged to hire from the broadest possible talent pool.
Women need backers in the workplace and they can’t just be other women – although, as former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted: “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”.
Levelling the playfield means not only relieving women of the weights that are holding them back, but men stepping off the powered walkway too.